Panthers Corral Broncos 30-10

Carolina Panthers, your division thanks you. You salvaged the integrity of the Dirty South, by not allowing the Denver Broncos to complete a sweep of the NFC South. It is also interesting to note that Denver beat New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta by a combined total of 9 points… and Carolina handily defeated the Broncos by 20.

The Panthers also kept their perfect home record in tact, and are enjoying their first undefeated season at their house since 1997. The Broncos fell to the Panthers, 30-10, on a cold, overcast afternoon in Charlotte, at Bank of America Stadium. The Kansas City Chiefs predictably found a way to blow a lead against San Diego, and with their loss went Denver’s automatic win of their division. Now, Denver will have to wait a week to secure it; the Panthers, as well, were assured of nothing more this weekend than being able to at least tie for the division title, as Dallas won out over the Giants, and Tampa Bay lost to Hotlanta.

After Carolina’s decimation of Tampa earlier in the week, Denver Coach Mike Shanahan was intent on stuffing the run game for the Panthers, and apparently that didn’t leave a lot of room for covering Steve Smith. Pay attention to him, or pay the price. Denver repeatedly had eight men in the box, with a four-linebacker set, and tried desperately to contain Carolina’s own wild horses, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

While all this attention slowed down the running game, it certainly did not stop it, as they went 12 for 88 yards, and 16 for 52 yards, respectively. Williams again beguiled by breaking off a beautiful 56-yard run for a touchdown in the the third quarter, and the rookie put his own points on the board as well. (Williams gained his 16th touchdown of the season, tying him with Muhsin Muhammad for the franchise record… all while sharing the load). But we still have the Steve Smith issue… and Denver had no answer.

He, and Muhshin Muhammad, carried Denver defenders on their backs on more than a few occasions. Smith of course dazzled us with several superhuman catches, and Moose also had his share; they, along with tightends Jeff King and Dante Rosario, have done an incredible job blocking for the backs, and each other, all season, and tonight was no exception. Moose should get credit for half of Smith’s TD, as he mightily held off two Denver defenders to create the ally for him.

Smith finished the game with 9 receptions for 165 yards, and Muhammad had 4 very important catches for 70 yards. While the Broncos were using their exotic defensive scheme to keep the ground game in check, Smith burned them for 126 yards in the first half alone. Carolina only had 24 yards rushing in the first two quarters, but obviously Denver’s attempt to make them one-dimensional failed.

The Carolina secondary made good on their promise earlier in the week to study up and not be the weak link; although they dropped several “easy” balls, Chris Gamble made an incredulous catch as he bobbled the ball back and forth between his hands several times. The Panthers were able to capitalize, and got three on a 44-yarder from reliable John Kasay. The play probably also sums up the way the day went for Denver: they were just trying to eat time off the clock to get to halftime, when Selvin Young is stripped by rookie safety Charles Godfrey, with DE Tyler Brayton recovered it.

Rookie tackle Ryan Clady proved as good as advertised for Denver, but he also seemed to hang his hat on holding Julius Peppers, though. Peppers still put a lot of pressure on Bronco QB Jay Cutler, but it would have been nice for the referees to have given more flags to Clady.

Carolina’s defense stepped up and did not allow much for the high-powered Denver offense; Denver actually scored on the first drive of the game, and gained a field goal on their next possession, but they amazingly were shut out of the endzone for the remainder of the game. Carolina also scored on their first drive, and actually showed a no-huddle offense, to again set a tone for the game.

Carolina has fared well and shown much fortitude in this tough stretch of the season; their biggest test thus far comes next, against the defending champions, the New York Giants. The Panthers can capture the number one seed in the NFC with a win at the Meadowlands, but beating the Men in Blue at their house in December is a tall order to fill. Thankfully Carolina seems to be getting hot at the right time, and let’s hope they can keep the momentum during these last two critical games of the regular season.

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